Friday 12 November 2010
A surge in the number of Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem is breathing new life into the holy city.
Christian pilgrims are now so numerous in the Old City of Jerusalem that this ancient metropolis seems to becoming for Christians what Mecca is to Muslims. They are arriving in record numbers.
“October saw the greatest number of Christian tourists here for 30 years,” said a hotel manager at Jaffa Gate. “Since the end of September we have been bursting at the seams. People have been waiting in queues for up to three hours in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to enter the Tomb of Christ.”
One guide predicted that a total of a million and a half Christians will have crowded down the Old City’s narrow dark alleys this year. A similar tourist buoyancy is seen all over Israel. Visitors to the state have risen 30% with a total of 3.2 million predicted for 2010.
In Jerusalem, Israel is seizing the business benefits and planning to boost numbers. It’s a move that the churches are embracing with joy. However, whether many local Arab Christians will profit directly from the tourist cash is doubtful. Most of the olive wood crosses, effigies of the Virgin Mary, rosary beads and souvenirs in Christian Quarter Road are sold by Muslims. The 7,000 Arab Christians living within the crenellated walls are outnumbered by 25,000 Muslims.
Amidst the spires and minarets more than the call of the muezzin competes with the ringing of church bells. Muslims now make up 25% of the residents in the historic Christian Quarter, while the shops and offices are 90% Muslim. A similar imbalance is seen in the Christian schools run by the churches where around two-thirds of the students are Muslim.
Palestinian businessmen are hoping that the severe shortage of hotel rooms will result in new Arab hotels. One Muslim lawyer complained, “Since 1967 new licences have been granted solely to Jews in East Jerusalem. Existing Arab hotels, hospices and hostels have only been allowed to renovate, revamp and expand.”
But not all are convinced that the increase in tourism is beneficial. Traffic on roads leading into Jerusalem is slowed down by huge tourist coaches; at certain times of the day on the Via Dolorosa it is impossible to walk, especially when large prayer groups pause to worship at each of the 14 Stations of the Cross; up to 30 coaches are parked some mornings on the Jericho Road near the Garden of Gethsemane.
“Surging crowds are sometimes so dense that Israel needs to introduce one-way streets for pedestrians,” said Father George Kraj who runs the Christian Information Centre and Pilgrim Mass Booking Agency opposite the Tower of David.
However, as many Protestants point out to Catholics, there is nothing in the New Testament directing followers of Jesus to take pilgrimages. This contrasts with Islam and Judaism. The Qur’an states that it is a duty of the followers of Islam to make a hajj; the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy order Jewish males to make journeys annually to the Temple.
Father George rationalises that as Catholics follow both Scripture and tradition, Christians inherited the Jewish practice of pilgrimage. With passion he added, “We can all follow the example of Jesus’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem!”
My suggestion that Christians should find salvation within themselves, not in places, brought a swift rebuttal. Pilgrimages, he argued, were only absent from the New Testament because, by the time that pen was put to papyrus, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem: “Landmarks were flattened, Jews were banned from the city – and the early Christians were mostly Jews.”
Whatever the perception of pilgrimage little has inhibited Christians from coming to Jerusalem. A few centuries after the Crusades, Geoffrey Chaucer showed the popularity of Jerusalem as a destination by describing the lusty Wife of Bath in his Canterbury Tales, travelling there no less than three times.
The Reformation, though, was fierce in its discouragement of pilgrimages. Nonconformists were exhorted to find the heavenly Jerusalem and not seek its rival, the earthly Jerusalem. Pilgrimages to shrines, along with penances, confession, rosaries and relics, are deeply rooted in what divided the churches after the Reformation. Paradoxically, it was not a Catholic, but a devout nonconformist, Thomas Cook, who started biblical package tours in the late 19th century. He enthusiastically brought the largest number of tourists – most with a bible in their hands and a prayer on their lips – to the Holy Land since the Crusades. Today, like Cook, many Evangelical tourists could be described as pilgrims but, dismissing the very concept, call themselves “religious tourists”.
Apart from the present relative peace in the area, what is less clear is the cause of the sudden increase in religiously motivated tourism to the holy city. Most who are asked include the word “spiritual” in their answer. The more sceptical, though, partly attribute the increase to advertising and marketing.